Sociology Index


Cognitive anthropology is also known as ethnoscience. Cognitive anthropology examines the ways that peoples of different cultures classify or categorize items of the everyday world. Cognitive anthropology has some connection to ethnomethodology.

Cognitive anthropology is an idealist approach to studying the human condition. The field of cognitive anthropology focuses on the study of the relation between human culture and human thought. Cultures are not regarded as material phenomena.

Cultures are regarded as cognitive organizations of material phenomena. Cognitive anthropologists study how people understand and organize the material objects, events, and experiences that make up their world as the people they study perceive it. Cognitive anthropology is an approach that stresses how people make sense of reality according to their own indigenous cognitive categories, not those of the anthropologist. Cognitive anthropology posits that each culture orders events, material life and ideas, to its own criteria. The fundamental aim of cognitive anthropology is to reliably represent the logical systems of thought of other people according to criteria, which can be discovered and replicated through analysis.

The methodology, theoretical underpinnings, and subjects of cognitive anthropology have been diverse. The field of cognitive anthropology can be divided into three phases: (1) an early formative period in the 1950’s called ethnoscience; (2) the middle period during the 1960’s and 1970’s, commonly identified with the study of folk models; and (3) the most recent period beginning in the 1980’s with the growth of schema theory and the development of consensus theory. Cognitive anthropology is closely aligned with psychology, because both explore the nature of cognitive processes (D'Andrade 1995:1).

Cognitive anthropology is a broad field of inquiry; for example, studies have examined how people arrange colors and plants into categories as well how people conceptualize disease in terms of symptoms, cause, and appropriate treatment. Cognitive anthropology not only focuses on discovering how different peoples organize culture but also how they utilize culture. Contemporary cognitive anthropology attempts to access the organizing principles that underlie and motivate human behavior. Though the scope of cognitive anthropology is expansive its methodology continues to depend strongly on a long-standing tradition of fieldwork and structured interviews.

Cognitive anthropologists regard anthropology as a formal science. They maintain that culture is composed of logical rules that are based on ideas that can be accessed in the mind. Cognitive anthropology emphasizes the rules of behavior, not behavior itself. Cognitive anthropology does not claim that it can predict human behavior but delineates what is socially and culturally expected or appropriate in given situations, circumstances, and contexts.